After finding thousands of dollars of spoiled kosher meat in the University of California, Berkeley Hillel refrigerator, Jewish students and professionals knew something needed to change.
This was just the latest consequence of crippling power outages in Northern California.
Last fall, as fierce winds and low humidity increased fire risk, utility companies cut power to millions of Californians to prevent electrical lines from sparking and igniting blazes. Being located in the wildland-urban interface — where cities and towns meet forests, grasslands, and scrublands — made Berkeley Hillel more vulnerable to wildfires.
Over the course of five months, the Hillel building lost power 13 times.
“We weren’t in the building during many of the outages because we were working from home,” said Micah Lesch, director of Jewish student life at Berkeley Hillel. “We frequently had to reset our clocks, WiFi, and security systems after days or weeks away from Hillel.”
To cope with future power outages amid wildfire season, Berkeley Hillel professionals started thinking about purchasing a backup battery.
Around the same time, Lesch began working with Hillel students to create a Dayenu Circle, a Jewish-inspired group that addresses climate change through political action. Dayenu Circle members discussed the benefits of solar energy. The conversation sparked an idea. They spoke with more Jewish students and professionals at Berkeley over the next few weeks, and soon after, the Hillel community decided solar panels and a backup battery were a must.
From there, students took the reins.
They met with various solar companies, brainstormed events and programs, and even scoped out the roof of the building to figure out where the panels would go.
Bella Weksler, a freshman studying society and environment, said going solar is one of the most important sustainability projects for Berkeley Hillel. Right now, Hillel can play a greater role in curbing the ever-worsening effects of climate change, she added.
“The solar panels will pay for themselves in a decade,” Weksler said. “Not only do they remove greenhouse gasses, but they are an investment in our future.”
To pay for the panels, Berkeley Hillel is planning to use a $25,000 grant from a private foundation that funds building infrastructure.
Sasha Pullman, a freshman and sustainable environmental design major, said that Hillel is also going to use $19,000 raised on Giving Tuesday, an international day of online giving. The Jewish Solar Challenge, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that funds solar projects, is matching every dollar raised to help pay for the panels, she added.
“We really want to show that enough people care about this and can make this change,” Pullman said.
The panels will likely be installed in late March by a solar company called Sun Light & Power. Current projections estimate 75% of the building will run on solar power, said Daniel Conway, a freshman studying environmental economics and policy.
“We are all so passionate about this project,” Conway said. “How cool is it to be able to say that so much of our building will run off of solar power?”
Conway, along with Pullman and Weksler, recently presented the project to about 15 Berkeley Hillel board members. All three students said they felt supported by the Hillel professionals and the board during the meeting.
Pullman recalled that attendees were excited and frequently gave her a thumbs up during the presentation.
“As new students who want to see this change happen before we graduate, Hillel brought us in to talk about why solar energy and sustainability are important,” Pullman said. “We just really want to inspire other people and Hillels across the country.”
Lesch believes they will. He said Berkeley Hillel can provide a sustainability model for Hillels and other Jewish organizations looking to make a positive, long-lasting impact. Small changes, such as improving compost and recycling programs and switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, are simply not enough.
“Confronting the climate crisis requires spiritual audacity and bold political action,” Lesch said. “We are doing all we can to embody that here at Hillel.”
Jordan Greene is a junior at Syracuse University.